I'm making a little book provisionally titled Just So Many Words: A Dictionary of Life-Giving Definitions. The premise of the book is that no definition can ever ultimately be right, so why not use definitions that are the most helpful? I offer a candidate for the word ambition below, and I welcome your thoughts in the comments below that.
…comes from the Latin ambitio, which arose from ambi-, or “going around.” Specifically, ambitio was going around for votes, especially by candidates for office in Rome. The word was originally, then, almost a groveling for favor, a striving to please, court, and flatter—or a “thirst for popularity,” according to etymonline.com. Early English usage of the word always carried this negative connotation.
Nowadays, we think of ambition as something grander. But it still smacks of a goal that is defined by conventional ideas of status—of someone saying, “Look at me!” We don’t usually speak, for example, of an ambition to live in the woods and listen to birds chirp all day.
So we should be wary of an ambition—or at least examine it to see if there’s anything of substance in it. Napoleon was ambitious. He led 600,000 of his fellow Frenchmen into Russia and came back with 100,000. What’s a half million frozen, starved, and shot when you’ve got yourself an ambition? Even altruistic-seeming ambitions may be fueled largely by the need to be seen as altruistic.
The need for one’s grand achievement to be recognized by others is the conflict inherent in ambition. It wants a grandness that isn’t so grand that the not-so-grand masses can’t recognize it as grand—which makes it not so grand after all. Ambition tends to seek superiority for its own sake, but can never get it. How can I achieve superiority when I so badly need my “inferiors” to bestow it on me? The ambitious person is still “going around” in this doomed and endless circle. Because of this, ambition tends to escalate in desperation and become brutal—a steamroller crashing through the forest towards the next big thing it thinks it needs. Napoleon marching to Russia.
The only cure for ambition is something grander—an idea so beautiful and ridiculous that most people dismiss it outright. And yet we all knew it was true when we were babies. We knew that, without lifting a finger—before we could lift a finger—we had come streaking into this world straight from heaven, trailing Wordsworth’s “clouds of glory.” We knew we didn’t need to please another living soul to have our praises sung by angels.
We weren’t arrogant about this. We were just realistic.
Our actions can arise from this knowing, like flowers from good soil. They may be deemed great by the world or not. It’s all the same to us. We’re just being ourselves.
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